Logic wins out over passion. This historical narrative usually begins in ancient Greece. Plato believed the soul was divided into three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason seeks truth and wants the best for the whole person. Spirit seeks recognition and glory. Appetite seeks base pleasures. For Plato, reason is like a charioteer who must master his two wild and ill-matched horses. “If the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail,” Plato wrote, “then we can lead a life here in happiness and harmony, masters of ourselves.”

Eventually, rationalism produced its own form of extremism. The scientific revolution led to scientism. Irving Kristol defined scientism as the “elephantiasis of reason.” Scientism is taking the principles of rational inquiry, stretching them without limit, and excluding any factor that doesn’t fit the formulas.

In short, the rationalism method has yielded many great discoveries, but when it is used to explain or organize the human world, it does have one core limitation. It highly values conscious cognition—what you might call Level 2 cognition—which it can see, quantify, formalize, and understand. But it is blind to the influence of unconscious—what you might call Level 1 cognition—which is cloudlike, nonlinear, hard to see, and impossible to formalize. Rationalists have a tendency to lop off or diminish all information that is not calculable according to their methodologies.

This scientism has expressed itself most powerfully, over the last fifty years, in the field of economics. Economics did not start out as a purely rationalist enterprise. Adam Smith believed that human beings are driven by moral sentiments and their desire to seek and be worthy of the admiration of others.

Leaders of the British Enlightenment acknowledged the importance of reason. They were not irrationalists. But they believed that individual reason is limited and of secondary importance. “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” David Hume wrote. “We are generally men of untaught feelings,” Edmund Burke asserted. “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small.” Whereas the leaders of the French Enlightenment spoke the language of logic, science, and universal rules, the leaders of the British Enlightenment emphasized the power of the sentiments and the affections.

And in truth, this debate between pure reason on one side and intuition and affection on the other is one of the oldest. Intellectual history has oscillated between rationalist and romantic periods, or as Alfred North Whitehead put it, between eras that are simpleminded and those that are muddleheaded. During simpleminded periods, rationalist thinkers reduced human behavior to austere mathematical models. During muddleheaded eras, intuitive leaders and artists guide the way. Sometimes imagination grows too luxuriant. Sometimes reason grows too austere.

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (David Brooks)

Men of Untaught Feelings

Patrick Schreiner

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I teach New Testament at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. I am married with three children. This blog, against all wisdom, includes anything I am interested in. That includes movies, music, theology, culture, hermeneutics, the Gospels, and politics. Feel free to comment and let me know you are reading or that you have found something helpful. I reserve the right to delete unhelpful or rude comments. Many of these posts are simply things I find interesting and therefore I am not asserting I agree with everything I link to.

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